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Heart Rate Training: Getting in the Zone

With advances in watches and fitness trackers these days, more and more of us are using them to help us navigate traffic, check the weather, set reminders and even monitor our heart rates during workouts.

While heart rate monitoring is great, many of us might not know what to do with the data. Whether you’re a beginner or a highly conditioned athlete, to maximize your exercise and overall health, it helps to learn your target heart rate (THR) zone.

“Being in tune with your target heart rate zone is really important as it can let you know if you are pushing too hard, not enough or are in that sweet spot or Goldilocks zone—what we like to call the target heart rate,” said Roderick Tung, MD, an electrophysiologist and chief of cardiology with Banner - University Medicine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to get the recommended 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity physical activity, your pulse or heart rate should be within that zone for the most aerobic benefits.

So how do you know if you are hitting that sweet spot? Dr. Tung explains how to calculate your THR zone and important tips to keep in mind.

Calculating your THR zone

Step one: Calculate your resting heart rate

Before you try to figure out your THR, you’ll want to first measure your resting heart rate by counting the number of times your heart beats per minute at rest. The best time to do this is first thing in the morning, before you get out of bed. Track it over the course of several days to get a consistent reading and share with your doctor if you have any concerns.

The average resting heart rate should be anywhere between 60 to 90 beats per minute (bpm). However, some athletes could have an even lower heart rate, roughly 40-50 bpm.

Step two: Calculate your maximum heart rate

Unless your doctor has recommended you undergo an exercise tolerance or stress test to measure your maximum heart rate (MHR), you can calculate it using the following formula:

MHR = 220 - age

For example, if you are 40 years old, your MHR would be 180 bpm.

Step three: Calculate your target heart rate

Once you have your MHR, you can figure out your (THR) zone as 60% to 80% of that number. For example, if you are 40 years old and have an MHR of 180, your THR would range from 108 to 144 bpm. This is considered the sweet spot for moderate-intensity activity.

“Please note that these are just averages to use as a guide,” Dr. Tung said. “If you feel these are off, talk to your doctor to determine a target heart rate zone that is best for you.”

Step four: Getting into the zone

Once you know your THR zone, you will know how hard to exercise to gain the most aerobic benefit from your workout. You can exercise within your THR to either maintain or raise your aerobic fitness level.

As a general tip, if you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to stay in the lower end of your target zone for the first few weeks and slowly build up.

“Remember, your target heart rate is a guide and every individual is different,” Dr. Tung said. “Pay attention to how you feel, how hard you are breathing, how fast your heart is beating and how much you feel the exertion in your muscles.”

Heart rate zones

There are five heart rate training zones which are based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate. As the zone numbers increase, so does the target heart rate range and degree of effort required to remain in that heart rate zone.

Zone 1: 50 to 60% of your maximum heart rate. This zone includes light activities, warmups and cool downs. You can easily carry on a conversation while exercising in this zone. Examples include leisurely walking or an easy bike ride. 

Zone 2: 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. You can maintain this level of exertion for a sustained period of time while still carrying on a conversation. Most people can perform a fast walk or slow jog in this zone. Keeping your heart rate in zone 2 will enable you to reap the health benefits of exercise such as improved endurance, cardiovascular fitness and weight loss.

Zone 3: 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. In this zone, exercise intensity will feel moderate to hard. Your conversation will most likely be short with broken sentences. Training in zone 3 will challenge your body to achieve higher levels of fitness, heart and lung endurance and increased blood circulation.

Zone 4: 80-90% of your maximum heart rate. In zone 4 you will be exerting a vigorous effort that can only be sustained for a limited amount of time. High intensity interval training (HIIT) includes short periods of exercise in this range. At this high intensity, you will be breathing heavy and be unable to carry on a conversation. Training in this zone helps to achieve performance gains in speed, strength and endurance.

Zone 5: 90-100% of your maximum heart rate. Training in this zone is a maximum, all-out effort, such as sprinting as fast as you can. This level of maximum exertion can only be sustained in short bursts, and is used by athletes to improve competitive performance.

Before you begin an exercise program

If you haven't been physically active in quite some time or have an underlying medical condition, check with your doctor first before starting any exercise training routine.

People who take beta blockers will not be able to rely on heart rate training zones because these medications block the natural heart rate response to exercise. Following the advice of your cardiologist and using a perceived level of exertion (RPE scale) may be the best way to determine the appropriate exercise intensity for those on beta blockers.

"While I don't necessarily worry about those athletes who've maybe taken a few years off after high school or college and are picking up exercise again in their 20s and 30s, I do worry about those who've taken a decade or more off," Dr. Tung said. "It's important to meet with your primary care physician first to check things like your blood pressure and overall health. They can also help you find a routine and target heart rate zone that matches your needs, goals and physical condition."

Important tips to keep in mind:

  • Use your target heart rate as a guide.
  • Listen to your body and don’t overdo it.
    • Remember to take things slow. You can’t go from couch to marathon in a day. If you are starting a new exercise program, gradually build up—don’t push it too hard right out of the gate to prevent overtraining and risk injury.
    • “What often can happen to those who haven’t been exercising regularly is that just as quickly as they dive right back into fitness, they are sidelined from an injury,” Dr. Tung said. “Remember you didn’t get where you are today overnight, so don’t expect to change overnight.”
  • See a doctor before starting a new fitness program or if have an underlying health condition.

Have questions or concerns about starting an exercise program?

Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.
Find a Banner Health provider or specialist near you by visiting bannerhealth.com.

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Updates were made to the content of this article on December 12, 2023. 

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